Unique partnership leads to student excellence

Unique partnership leads to student excellence

July 1, 2005

Even if you are a M.D. or a PhD in molecular biology, do you think you would understand the details of research projects such as Understanding HLA-G in HIV Resistant and Infected Individuals, Accelerating Wound Healing Through the Addition of Interleukin-Alpha to Indirectly Increase the Levels of Beta-Catenin, or B Cell Tolerance in Novel Chimerism Strategies for Transplantation?

These intriguing and scientifically challenging topics are actually not post doctorate projects at advanced research labs. In fact, they are only a few of the hundreds of student projects in the 2005 Sanofi Aventis Biotech Challenge (SABC), a Canadian student science competition whose unique approach has resulted in its teenage participants developing their own ideas into research results equal to that of some of our leading laboratories. They are using biotechnology to seek answers to some of society's most pressing concerns-whether it is a cure for disease, resolving an environmental issue or improving our food supply.

In addition to its award-winning process (the program has won the prestigious Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion), the SABC is also unique as a successful example of public-private partnership. Now in its 13th year of operation, the program involves more than 100 partnering organizations operating 13 regional competitions in every province of Canada. The winners go on to the annual National Awards competition.

The program's list of national supporters reads like a "Who's Who" of Canada's senior scientific research institutions. It includes the founding industrial partner, Sanofi Pasteur and Sanofi Aventis, the Canadian vaccine and pharmaceutical divisions of the global life sciences leader who began the competition in Toronto at the 1994 BIO Conference. Other national partners are Human Resources Skills Development Canada, the Biotechnology Human Resources Council, the National Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Genome Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and VWR International.

These organizations and others in regional locations such as Calgary, Saskatoon, Montreal and Fredericton, have come together because they all believe in the SABC's two main objectives: to encourage more Canadian students to pursue studies and careers in biotechnology and to raise public awareness of the potential benefits of biotechnology through its beneficial applications in health care, agriculture, and the environment.

The competition mirrors the real world of scientific research through a distinct approach which requires students to submit their own research proposals which are evaluated by an evaluation committee of leading scientists. The projects are then accepted or declined and those that move on are teamed up with a scientific mentor who works with them to provide advice and allow access to professional labs. The final judging is done by representatives from the scientific, educational, and business communities.

The results have certainly proven that in the life sciences, Canada's young people are among the brightest and best in the world. The winners share thousands of dollars in prizes and many go on to success at international scientific competitions. In fact, there is now a similar program based on the Canadian SABC model-the BioGeneius Awards which are held each year at the international BIO Conference in different cities across the U.S.

In a recent survey, more than 85 percent of all past participants said that their participation in the SABC helped them gain a positive understanding of Canada's biotechnology industry, and 75 percent stated that it was very helpful in assisting them with their career plans. None of this could be accomplished without the active participation and support of all the various partners of the SABC. "There is no finer public outreach opportunity for science and technology and technology in Canada", says Dr. Peter Hackett, President of the Alberta Heritage Institute and former Vice-President of the National Research Council of Canada.

Clearly biotechnology is critical to a successful scientific and economic future for Canada. And achieving that future depends on our most important resource-our young people. Everyone-scientists, industry leaders, and government officials-can play an active role by actively supporting programs such as the SABC, to inspire and encourage the biotechnology leaders of tomorrow.

Don McKibbin is a Chair for the Toronto Steering Committee for the Sanofi Biotech Aventis Challenge.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.